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Redefining the Borders of Abstraction

November 14, 1996|DAVID PAGEL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Only eight months have passed since Carolee Toon's last solo show in Los Angeles, but it's enough time for the 59-year-old painter to have made some of the most exciting abstractions in recent memory. The two newest works in her splendid eight-painting exhibition at Kiyo Higashi Gallery represent a brilliant--and astonishingly simple--solution to a problem painting has had since frames fell out of fashion.

Successfully dealing with the border that separates a painting from the rest of the world may sound like an empty, formalist exercise, but Toon has made clear it's not a dead issue. Her beautiful works gracefully segue from three dimensions to two, intensifying their bodily impact as they do so.

Toon's two newest pieces are intimately scaled monochromes whose quietly ravishing rectangles of dense silver-white appear to float in front of the gallery's walls. Surrounded by delicate, wavering lines that echo their edges, these mysterious fields of supersaturated color invite viewers to get lost in sensuous spaces that are different from everyday reality but inseparable from it.

Each of these works began as a rectangle of fine plywood whose edges were sanded at oblique angles so that they would slant outward from the frontal surface of each panel. Toon then painted the faces of the panels with hundreds of coats of enamel and lightly stained their angled edges, leaving its wood grain visible. As a result, each painting consists of a rectangle of impenetrable color surrounded--or framed--by angled cross sections of softly tinted plywood.

The concentric lines formed by the alternating layers of the plywood resemble quivering drawings. The effect is similar to that of a stone being dropped into a calm pond: ripples radiating outward.

In a very real sense, Toon's new works turn painting inside out. Rather than adding frames to finished pictures, her panels extract their "frames" from their grounds in an almost archeological manner. Deconstructing the opposition between paintings and frames--or surfaces and edges--these ingenious pieces push their medium to its borders all the better to draw viewers into the center.

* Kiyo Higashi Gallery, 8332 Melrose Ave., (213) 655-2482, through Dec. 21. Closed Sundays and Mondays.

L.A. Haunts: Madoka Takagi's handsome platinum prints at Cirrus Gallery travel to yesteryear without leaving the present. Shot at carefully chosen locations around Los Angeles, Santa Monica, Mar Vista, Topanga, Studio City and Venice, these haunting pictures of anonymous roadways, unremarkable apartments and shady bungalows reveal that Raymond Chandler's noir-tinged Los Angeles has not been completely crowded out by modern skyscrapers, strip malls and freeways.

With impressive consistency, the Japanese-born, L.A.-based photographer casually captures classic Southern California scenes that seem to belong to an era more than 50 years past. Winding canyon roads, empty intersections and endless avenues bespeak a time of tight-knit neighborhoods and slower paces.

Solid Spanish-style buildings, tall palms peeking through the smog and long shadows falling everywhere evoke an age of wide-open urban spaces. No people appear in any of Takagi's beautifully subdued images, but if they did they'd probably resemble the alienated souls in Edward Hopper's paintings.

Yet Takagi's photographs never traffic in nostalgia or sappy sentimentality. "For Sale" signs, high-voltage lines, chain-link fences, mobile home parks and late model cars firmly root the young artist's work in the present. Even the images with no overt signs of modern Los Angeles are charged with a fresh and edgy contemporary presence.

Although Takagi uses an arcane type of processing and an old- fashioned camera, she prints her extremely detailed images on ordinary tracing paper. Hardly precious, this flexible, high-tech material is the perfect vehicle for a body of work intent on demonstrating that when it comes to cities, the past lives on in the present, provided you know where to look.

* Cirrus Gallery, 542 S. Alameda St., (213) 680-3473, through Nov. 30. Closed Sundays and Mondays.

Open Messages: Christopher French's wry paintings at Mark Moore Gallery begin by acknowledging that much of what passes for communication is actually willful misinterpretation. Rather than despair over this potentially grim fact, the Washington, D.C.-based artist builds it into his light-handed abstractions. These multilayered works never lead back to a single, defining intention, instead inviting viewers to misread their mix-and-match messages as creatively as possible.

In previous bodies of work, French jammed the channels of communication by using whole pages of Braille in his paintings. If you didn't know this tactile code, these pieces read as abstract compositions whose significance resided in their visual rhythms and syntactical shifts.

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